Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Gene Williams at the Ascot Shop in La Jolla
Sparky looks up and down the sidewalk as he dusts off your wingtips. In an absent, automatic motion he daubs thick brown polish from a can of Kiwi and covers your ankles, the sides of your arches, and the tips of your nicely broken-in pavement pounders. “Word on the street is Fat Benny’s out and he’s lookin’ for the mugs that rolled over on ’im.”
“Izzat a fact?” You light a six-bit cigar and lift the racing form, which covers your face. From the bottom of the sheet you can see Sparky’s cap bobbing away over your feet. You don’t even have to ask; Sparky’s way ahead of you. That’s why they call him Sparky — he’s half radio receiver. “Painted Garters in the ninth,” he says, and you circle it without question. “You got a message for Fat Benny?”
“Yeah. Tell him his mother wears army boots.”
“He ain’t gonna like that, Johnny.” “Aw, nuts to him.”
This is the loving image of the shoeshine boy handed down to us from the movies. He’s the eyes and ears on the street, always has the skinny; a dead-end kid with street smarts or a wise old black man with supernatural wisdom. Sometimes in the last reel he even takes a bullet meant for Johnny. His is a benevolent presence on the avenue or in the lobby, not like the grizzled newsie in his magazine nest on the comer working all the angles for a few bills.
Whatever happened to these guys? Are they still around? The answer is yes, but in diminishing numbers. And while they may not fill the stereotypical bill, they are unusual characters in their own right.
The Zen Shoeshine stand is downtown at 138 Broadway, in the Greyhound bus building next to the Picadilly Room, where at any time of year you’ll find Damon Runyonesque geezers and aging dolls drinking away the best of a warm San Diego day.
The shine stand is in front of a barber shop/salom called I designer Cuts, which consists of two chairs tucked just a few feet off the street. This is the oldest shoeshine stand in San Diego, according to the man who most days works the business from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. His name is Pontiac. He says the stand has been right here since the 1930s.
Pontiac looks like a benevolent pirate, the one who helps the kidnapped children escape the bad pirates. Black hair, a wild black goatee, an earring stud in his left ear, and eyes that seem amused at everything. He often flashes teeth like piano keys, and he wears an apron like an artist’s smock, stained with different-colored polishes. “I’ve been here for two years,” he says with a trace of an accent — an accent I cannot place. “I used to do it as a kid, and then all of a sudden it revitalized. It seemed like the thing to do.” The 45-year-old Pontiac is referring to the coming of age of yuppies who ditched their Nikes and Birkenstocks for Bally loafers and Bass Weejuns.
The barbershop/salon behind the stand. he says, is “family run. My sister-in-law cuts hair, and my brother owns it.”
For the last two minutes, Pontiac has been staring at my cowboy boots. I bought these things years ago in TJ, and I never took very good care of them because they refused to break in comfortably. I was punishing them. Now I was about to treat them to a quick makeover.
Pontiac discards my question about the most interesting character he’s met and speaks instead about his approach to the art of shoeshining. “I’ve put everything that I’ve done in my life into shining shoes. In other words, for me, it is the Zen of shining shoes.” He spreads a blend of two polishes on my Mexican leather, checks out the pattern of scuffs on the heel and toe, and makes his pronouncement — “motorcycle” — as if he’s Sherlock Holmes.
“Yeah, actually,” I say. “The ankle scuffs are from the kickstand, and the toe scuffs are from shifting gears.”
“Uh-huh,” he says, and continues his commentary. “Everything in my life has led up to the simplicity of shining your shoes, just like on Sunday when you had to shine your shoes before you went to church. I do it so well, I have a large clientele that comes to me to have it done for them.”
Pontiac takes a bottle of dark-looking dye, opens the cap, and produces a wire with a cloth ball at its end. Fie traces the brownish-wine coloring around the base of the heel and the sides of the sole. “I am framing your boot,” he explains. “Setting the frame.” He lifts the bottle. “This is called sole dressing. Some people do it after and some do it before. I always do it before. It puts color back into your sole — no pun intended.”
When asked, “What are the things you’ve done in your life that have brought you here, to shining my shoes?” Pontiac answers, “Music. Art.”
“What do you play?”
“Every kind of instrument, from electric guitar to saxophone. I’ve had my bands in Los Angeles. I did that whole thing. I’ve done it all.”
“It seems you enjoy what you’re doing now.”
“Yes, I do, but there is always the tedious aspect to it. I have customers who will walk straight up to one of my chairs and expert to be taken care of with no understanding of what I put into it.”
“Is there some protocol, some decorum involved before getting into the chair?”
“No. With some there will be the courtesy or the cordiality to let me know they are one of my customers or they are not. I do not look at my customers straight in the face; I look at their shoes. I don’t remember customers by their face, but by their shoes. Some of them might find that rude, but...”
Pontiac has finished framing the boot and is now reaching for a polish, a particular shade from over a dozen in his box.
“So,” I suggest, “you could be shining the shoes of a city councilman or a judge, and you wouldn’t necessarily know.”
“Only if they tell me.”
“So, this Zen thing: are you really, in fact, a Buddhist?”
“So, it’s kind of meditative? Shining shoes?"
“The Zen comes in. Every shoe that comes in, I have to analyze how I’m gonna approach it. What color I’m gonna apply. What that person came for. Did they come because they didn’t have the time to do it themselves, or did they come because they know that I add that special thing to their life that day. Does that make sense?” On the radio near my left boot-shod foot, rock and roll oldies play. “Ticket to Ride” is on the air.
“You said you were an artist. Do you mean a painter?”
“Yes,” he smiles widely. “I learned how to make colors. I can get colors that you cannot get with the waxes that I use unless you mix them. No one does that. That’s where the art comes in.”
Pontiac tells me that he is Mexican. “Yeah. To cut to the chase. But what is Mexican?” It’s a rhetorical question, and he’s still rooting in his tins of wax and polish. He could just as easily be Gypsy, Basque, or Corsican — something exotic.
I bring up the 1970s bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pontiac is quick to recognize the title. “Exactly. You are the second person,” he tells me, “to bring that up. Somebody else brought that up. The Zen of Shoeshine.
“I analyzed your shoes as you walked up. I love motorcycles. When you walk away, you will be a satisfied customer. But it’s not just the monetary thing. Because like I said, I am not the entrepreneur.” Now the radio honks “Let’s Dance” — not the Bowie version, but the original. “How many customers do I have a day? Today, not a lot. I can reach a peak of — let’s say I’ve gotten close to $100 without tax. But that is working too hard.” Pontiac charges $3 a shine. I quickly do the math. Close to 30, figuring in modest tips. “That many and I’m losing the art again. The next day, I might not have any.” Art? Customers? I’m not sure which he means.
Pontiac shares the stand with a few others. He mentions “a gentleman who opens up about nine o’clock. He’s a black gentleman named Sam.”
When asked what is required from the city in terms of licensing, Pontiac laughs. “Yes, you need a license.”
Does he mean a small business license?
“Yes, that’s all it takes." He nods, laughing. “And a little bit of know-how.” I get the feeling I’m missing some joke.
“This is not my calling,” he points out. “I do this for the cause, the family cause. And I’m good at it. I’ve had people come to me and tell me I’m the best. But if I was forced to do it, I wouldn’t be that good anymore. You understand that? There’s a part of me that could drop it anytime. Just walk away. But I still choose to hang on a little bit longer...a little bit longer. I’ve got 'mad money' in a coffee can. For some reason I don’t use it. It makes you stronger knowing it’s there. How do those shoes look?”
“They look great. How come I can’t get them like that?”
“It’s the power of thought and a little sleight of hand." He does not explain that last remark. He just smiles and says, “I am here to serve.” He pauses. “Zen,” he says, then studies my boots and adds, “it’s a dying art.”
It is impossible to tell whether he means Zen Buddhism or professional shoeshining. When I ask him which, he only smiles and nods, “Yeah.”
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine" pulses from the radio now, the Marvin Gaye version. Pontiac buffs a little more with the stained, soft cloth. It feels good. “You’ll go back home to your problems, whatever they are, but you’ll have nice-looking shoes now.”
Where do you go when you go home?” I ask.
“I live on the streets. I always have a spot.”
I’m surprised. “But you’re clean and your beard is trimmed and.... Do you have to live in the streets?”
“As a means of sanity, yeah.”
“Well, thank you for the shine.” I give him $6. It seems worth it. He looks down at my boots and nods.
“You’re on the right path,” he says.
Uptown now. Way uptown is the Ascot Shop on Girard Avenue in La Jolla, the kind of place George Sanders would have shopped for a canary-yellow cravat and lingered — bored after a lunch of Brie, grapes, and “champers” at La Valencia — for a shine. Had Sanders not literally “bored” himself to death, he might have had the pleasure of encountering 67-year-old Gene Williams and his footwear-highlighting concession in the small but elegant shoe department of the store.
On February 11 of this year, Williams was honored by the La Jolla Rotary Club. “For outstanding service and commitment to his customers.” Williams points to the plaque, a glossy, black-embossed rectangle with a gold wreath against fine-grained wood. “I was the guest of honor at that luncheon,” he says — a luncheon that took place at the venerable La Valencia.
Williams is the color of French roast coffee with a dash of cream. His hair is mostly gone, except for two grey wing-like tufts above his ears. He wears glasses and speaks in a professional but companionable manner. His clothes are casual and worn, suitable for the job.
“One of my customers, an attorney here in town, recommended that idea. After I received the plaque and a little check that went along with it, I made a speech to the effect that I appreciated the recognition and that they had me as a guest of honor. I thanked the manager — Bill White, who will soon be owner of the store — who had given me the privilege of coming here and operating this stand for the benefit of the customers. I thanked him for that because before I started here in the store, the first day of February of 1990, I was outside on a stand by Johnny Rockets at Girard and Wall. I was down there in the court. The stand here at the store had been inactive from 1975 to 1990. So it has helped me, and it has helped him. I brought many of my customers into the shop here with me.” Williams looks at the plaque with pride and pleasure.
Gene Williams opened his first shoeshine parlor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on April 1, 1986. He left in December of 1988 “because of the economy there,” he says. “All those executive oil offices closed down.” Williams moved to San Diego to work as a waiter at the Admiral Kidd Club at Nimitz and Harbor Drive. “I was a waiter and a bartender primarily. Waiting on tables and tending bar got so political — because of the young managers they was bringin’ in hirin’ their friends and whatever — to the point where you couldn’t get a job for sale. Unless they had somethin’ real hard to do. Then they would bring us in. I said, ‘The hell with this!’ ”
Williams has an in-office shoeshine service in the mornings. “I go start out at One American Plaza downtown, then to Fifth and B, the First Interstate Building. Tuesday morning I go to UTC. I do two offices over there. I do Paine Webber and Merill Lynch and some brokerage houses here in downtown La Jolla. I’m usually here in the store from 1:15 in the afternoon to 4:00, 4:30.”
Williams is working over my boots, but I’m not in them. I’m wearing some comfortable Payless sneakers, and I still hate those boots, no matter how good they look. I ask Mr. Williams to assess the shine job they received the day before. I do not mention the artist’s name. Williams is generous; you get the feeling that he’s often generous. “You usually shine just the shoe of the boot and not the uppers,” he says. “At least not with polish, because it would rub off on the inside of your trousers.” He has defended Pontiac’s job.
He comments as he works. “You take this neutral cream here, a light-to-medium coat, and you brush it in. This will keep your uppers nice and soft. This is called Leather Balm; it’s a shoe cream. This cream is to the leather what a nice lotion is to the face. It keeps it nice and soft. I don’t know what these are, Tony Lamas or what, but the balm on the upper will help. Maybe not every time you shine them....” He’s being kind again; he knows damned well these aren’t Rodeo Drive cowboy boots.
“A lot of guys will see a pair of boots coming and say to themselves, ‘I can get five or six dollars for this shine,’ but that’s not my case. See? You got this here....” He points out stains on the shoe from the sole coloring. “You can take a little all-purpose cleaner and take that right off.” The boots are looking better now than when I bought them. Truth.
He buffs, and I wish I were in them. It would be an ironic pleasure to get a foot massage through these cruel beasts.
“They’re lookin’ a little different now than when you brought ’em in,” he says. I agree.
“See, my philosophy is, we can’t all be vice presidents or CEOs or whatever. Just be good at whatever you do and take pride in it. I keep people’s appearances up.” I notice Williams is listening to an oldies station too, 95.7, old R&B. Otis Redding laments from the dock of the bay. “There are more people in the service industry than anything else,” Williams continues. “Service jobs are always gonna be with us, whether it’s pumpin’ gas or shinin’ shoes or washin’ dishes. Hey, just take pride in it. I put on my radio, listen to some nice music, clean up some shoes, I go home. I don’t punch a clock.”
“One thing,” I hesitate and point to his scuffed, worn-out shoes, one with a hole gaping over the top of the arch. “Your shoes don’t look too good, Gene.”
“Well,” he says, looking defiant but glad I asked. “A good cook don’t always eat his own food either.”